This year Congress will debate whether to renew the charter of the Export-Import Bank, the 80-year-old federal institution that helps U.S. companies sell products and services overseas by providing loan guarantees and other sweeteners to foreign buyers. And like the last time the bank came up for renewal, in 2012, that debate will reignite a bitter, years-long feud between two big American companies: Boeing (BA), which lobbies furiously to protect the bank, and Delta Air Lines (DAL), which presses just as hard to eliminate the bank’s financial aid for foreign buyers of Boeing’s largest jets—who also happen to be Delta rivals.
“People on both sides of the political spectrum see that government should not be picking winners and losers in business.”—Senator Mike Lee
The Ex-Im Bank put up $27.3 billion in 2013 to help small and large U.S. companies close deals overseas. It provided a South African company with $230 million in loan guarantees to buy 100 locomotives built by General Electric (GE) and gave a $155 million direct loan to the Republic of Ghana to finance a hospital expansion designed and built by Miami-based Americaribe. Over the years, though, no U.S. company has benefited more from the agency’s largesse than Boeing. In 2013, the Ex-Im Bank offered $7.9 billion in loan guarantees to help the manufacturer sell 106 of its airplanes to foreign airlines in two dozen countries, reinforcing Ex-Im’s Washington nickname—“the Bank of Boeing.”
Delta, a major purchaser of Boeing jets, says the bank gives an unfair boost to its overseas competitors. In an April 7 letter to the House Committee on Financial Services, Lee Moak, a Delta captain who’s president of the Air Line Pilots Association, said the “bank’s unnecessary financing of wide-body aircraft” gives foreign carriers an “annual economic advantage” of $2 million per aircraft. (Boeing disputes this figure.) Conservative groups and their allies in Congress have taken up the cause, saying the bank isn’t needed because foreign companies can get financing without the Ex-Im Bank’s help. They also argue it benefits some U.S. companies over others. “People on both sides of the political spectrum see that government should not be picking winners and losers in business,” says Republican Senator Mike Lee of Utah, who wants to close the bank. The Club for Growth calls the Ex-Im Bank a “corporate-welfare slush fund.”
Photographs by BloombergThose are the same words Barack Obama used to describe it when he was running against government breaks for big corporations as a presidential candidate in 2008. He’s since changed his mind and joins most Democrats in backing the bank and praising the financial aid that makes Boeing and other U.S. companies more attractive to foreign customers. Boeing President and Chief Operating Officer Dennis Muilenburg told an April 3 meeting of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce—which supports the Ex-Im Bank—that it’s an “important tool” helping U.S. exporters to better compete around the world. The chamber and other backers point out that Airbus receives generous export credit assistance from European governments. Ending the bank’s financing for large aircraft exports “would amount to unilateral disarmament,” Muilenburg said.
Bank officials say their loans and guarantees clinch deals that otherwise wouldn’t happen. “Without Ex-Im Bank’s backing in these competitive foreign sales, thousands of U.S. jobs at Boeing and its suppliers would be in serious jeopardy,” spokesman Daniel Reilly said in an e-mail. The bank has another argument in its favor that assures Congress will almost certainly vote to renew its charter: Unlike other federal agencies that bleed tax dollars, the Export-Import Bank makes money. Last year, the interest and fees foreign companies paid on the bank’s loans generated more than $1 billion in profit for U.S. taxpayers.